Dialogues on Animality
A Graduate Student Symposium, October 2-3, 2009

@ Slought Foundation, 4017 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, PA
Organized by Ruth Erickson and Nathaniel Prottas

Despite Darwin’s claim that the human is an animal, humanity is often described in contradistinction to animality. Various binaries have defined the relationship between humans and animals, with the human capacity for consciousness, culture, rationality, and language understood as fundamental and determining differences. Today, rather than being fixed, the terms “animal” and “human” are increasingly understood as in flux, bound together theoretically, historically, and socially to enact a complex reciprocity that both defines and challenges the traditional categories of disciplines. If at the heart of the humanities is the question “what does it mean to be human?” this symposium seeks to explore the role of animals in the history and formation of this question from different disciplinary viewpoints.

One of the most interesting aspects of this dialogue is our understanding of the animal as a category of the “other,” a central concept of modern inquiry, especially as it focuses attention on identity issues, including gender, race, and queerness. This conference attempts to insert the “animal” into these discussions and to investigate the overlapping and contradictory categories that have come to define the animal/human relationship. These include questions of how we can understand the animal in relation to wildness/domestication, cultivation/ wilderness, language, consciousness, and instinct.

Approaches to the animal often vary widely between the sciences and humanities; this topic, therefore, provides a unique space in which to bring together diverse disciplines and methodologies. To this end, this symposium will include a variety of panels, discussions, as well as a keynote lecture by Akira Mizuta Lippit, Professor of Comparative Literature, East Asian Languages and Cultures and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.

This symposium is generously hosted by Slought Foundation and supported by the University of Pennsylvania’s History of Art Department, Cinema Studies, SASgov, English Department, Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures, Comparative Literature Department, GAPSA, and the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society.

Image credits: Films stills taken from animal-mounted cameras. Copyright Sam Easterson, artist and owner of Eco-Sensing.